Campaign Starter - The "Old Man In The Tavern" Revisited

This idea comes from an older post about using failure to drive story. I thought I’d flesh it out a little for a Thursday offering.

The Situation
Your first session: the party has been on their quest for months, looking long and hard for some objective. They’re out of leads, and now they’re in a tavern in a middle-of-nowhere town. The exact setting is up to you, but describe it well so it feels like a real place the players will engage with. It’s the last place they’d expect their luck to change.

Group Roleplay: What’s The Quest Goal?
If you haven’t done so before the first session, have the players discuss what, exactly, they’re questing for. This conversation will let you know what they want in the campaign, create some good back story for the characters, why they’re traveling together, and, if you’re lucky, give you some ideas you can turn into an overarching conflict (after all, why do they need what they’re after, and is it really what they think it is?).

Next, tell them they are in this tavern, talking about the adventures they’ve had so far. This is their opportunity to be creative, and to get into character. Attitudes may range from optimism to exhaustion as they discuss the trials and tribulations they’ve “already” faced. It will also show you what kind of adventures the players want to face as the campaign goes on.

You’re really polling them for ideas, but you’re doing it in-game.

And when one of their stories references the thing they’re searching for, you bring in the campaign’s first important NPC…

Old Man
Maybe the PCs are talking about where they should go next to find X (perhaps you’ve given them a map of the greater area for them to talk about – a good idea to inspire the creativity you’re expecting from them). Maybe you suggest that it’s the party leader’s habit to ask about X everywhere they go, and so one of them asks the barkeep or server. Or maybe they overhear a word in the Old Man’s conversation – a word they know from the legends about X.

However it happens, the Old Man now enters the scene. He’s willing enough to have an audience for his tale.

“[Quest objective here],” he murmurs, “’Tis many a year since I’ve heard that name. It stirs memories from days before you were born…” 

And he gives them the quest hook – what it is, exactly, which will depend on whatever quest you and the players have come up with. 

What’s next?
If you delivered the quest hook well, the players should have one or more ideas about what to do next. 

Usually on campaigns, it’s good to start with some inconsequential quests first. But on this one, they’re playing characters who have already had a lot of side adventures; the old man’s tip should make them feel that they are much nearer their goal – even though the real adventure is just beginning.

Purposes

  • In the clichéd “old man in the tavern” situation, the story is often unsolicited, and seems like just lame old GM information. GM information is necessary (some would say a necessary evil) – so this encounter turns the Old Man story a part of a story the players created themselves. Thus you’re entering a story they already care about, which they’ll like.
  • In the cliché, characters don’t usually have a reason to pursue the quest the Old Man mentions (or even believe he’s reliable), but players usually follow along because they know they’re “supposed” to. This encounter makes the story something they were “already” looking for.
  • In the cliché, the Old Man’s story starts the quest. The problem is, the beginnings of quests tend to start off in mundane-land and only “get good” later. This encounter uses the Old Man’s story to start the campaign, but the quest is already going. This way, the campaign starts when the quest “gets good.”